It seems certain that even the most scrupulous secular observer of the contemporary ultra-Orthodox experience, anywhere on the planet, will not have been privy to the intimacy and profound declarations of feeling and affection on display in “Fill the Void,” the daring, devastating debut from female Hasidic filmmaker Rama Burshtein.
The Israeli movie, which recently scooped up seven Ophir Awards, including best film and best director, and made its U.S. debut at the New York Film Festival this week, dissects in microscopic detail the emotional unraveling of a Haredi family grieving the loss of an adult daughter, who died in childbirth. The desperate matriarch (Irit Sheleg), faced with the possibility her widowed son-in-law Yochai (Yiftach Klein) will whisk her new grandchild off to Belgium in pursuit of an arranged marriage, pushes him to marry her youngest daughter, 18-year-old Shira.
With this ostensibly strange and unlikely suggestion, Burshtein does not send Shira — played by Hadas Yaron in a performance that won her best actress at the 69th Venice International Film Festival last month — off on a quixotic quest for love or to dig deep into the confusing morality of marrying one’s brother-in-law.
Instead, what unfolds is a tenderly restrained story of two people falling for each other. Bound by family duty and her own desire for a husband, Shira agrees to her mother’s proposal. In the context of this tight-knit, sheltered world of Tel Aviv Haredim, the film’s only setting, the idea of marrying a sister’s widow becomes perfectly reasonable.